For such a diminutive creature, the forest owlet has an interesting history. Though it was first discovered in 1873, it was not spotted after 1884 for more than a hundred years. Most thought it had gone extinct. But many decades later, it came to light that the specimen of the forest owlet that searches were based on had been partially falsified. The infamous British soldier and ornithologist, Richard Meinertzhagen, had stolen the original specimen and resubmitted it with incorrect locality information, hoping to claim credit for obtaining it. This meant that the searches for the forest owlet since 1873 took place only in Gujarat; it was only in 1997 that it was rediscovered in its natural habitats of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.
The forest owlet is a rather strange type of owl. While most owls are known for being nocturnal, the forest owlet is diurnal, which means it is active during the day. Girish Jathar, an ornithologist from the Bombay Natural History Society who did his PhD on the forest owlet, speculates that this might have been an evolutionary tactic to overcome competition for food. “Most forest owlets live in areas that might also be a home to 8 or 9 other species of owls. The sheer amount of owls active during the night would mean that catching prey would be harder; therefore, the forest owlet started to hunt during daytime,” he says. This move also makes sense given that insects are active during the day, making it easier for the forest owlet to scoop them up, and reptiles, their other food source, come out of hiding to bask in the sun.
Unless you are a highly trained ornithologist, you probably wouldn’t be able to spot the forest owlet. It looks strikingly similar to the spotted owlet, and being relatively unknown, most people usually wouldn’t even know that they’ve seen one. Both factors make it more difficult to get an accurate count. When Jathar sets out to identify the birds, he usually gives out the forest owlet’s call and hopes for a response. Otherwise, an in-depth knowledge of the birds’ identifying traits leads him to them. Around 20-cm tall, stocky, and brown in colour, they hardly stand out from other owls, but they do have some distinctive factors such as the three prominent black bands on their tales and unspotted mantles, as opposed to the spotted owls’ marked ones.
The Melghat Tiger Reserve has the highest known number of forest owlets, though quite a few owlets call the Tansa Wildlife Sanctuary home, too. Some have also been spotted in the Thane and Palghar districts of Maharashtra. “Numbers are hard to get hold of because identifying the bird is so difficult,” says Jathar. “Suffice to say that the total number of these birds in India are just a few hundred. They are a critically endangered, Schedule I species, on the verge of extinction. Even if their population was always small — we don’t know their baseline population — habitat degradation means that it has definitely declined over the last few decades.”
Jathar laments that owls are neglected birds, and none more so than the forest owlet. “Everyone is just interested in the beautiful birds,” he says. “You can count the number of large-scale research studies done on owls throughout India on one hand, even though they are fascinating creatures.”